I’ve struggled with writing a poignant post on this topic for a while. Harassment, Assault, Disrespect, and Hate. I’ve been punched, grabbed, creepily caressed, yelled at, and generally disrespected many many times over my year and a half in Ethiopia. BUT every time I want to write about it I stop, think it’s too much, and move on. A fellow volunteer up in the north of the country recently wrote down what every one of us girls wanted to – and much more eloquently than I could have. I agree with her anger, her pain, her confusion and her worries that she’s become mean, hardened and unloving. Ethiopia is great. Ethiopia is beautiful. Ethiopia is moving forward. But, Ethiopia can be mean. Ethiopia can be tough. Ethiopia can be awful.
Living in a big city and tourist destination I fall into the category of being sexually harassed multiple times a day. That means verbally. I am physically harassed much less often, but I cannot lie, it has been more frequent in the past 18 months than in the past 23 years combined. Most recently (3 days ago) I was rubbed up against at the post office. The first pass, I called it crowded (even though he and I were the only two people in the albeit tiny hall), the 2nd pass, I felt violated. And I do not use this word lightly. It wasn’t even that gross, a creepy caress of the arm, but the facial expression that accompanied it, the comment, and the entire situation meant I dwelt on it for days.
And those of you who know more details of my experience can attest this was nowhere near the worst of what I’ve encountered, just the most recent. And the same is true for friends in Gondar and across the country. So here I’ve copied my friend’s words, but the collective thoughts of all female volunteers here.
And for those of you too lazy to click the link – here is her post copied; she is a married volunteer:
On Being Hated, by Danielle L.
As our end of service approaches, and we get nearer and nearer to home and questions and Ethiopian storytime, I think it’s an appropriate time for some gritty honesty, for my own sake. Lately I’ve limited myself to hints, but the problem has become all-encompassing, comparable to the sorts of sun-blocking storm clouds that hang over Mt. Soloda in our rainy season, and I know I should share before coming home—I guess so that, well, you believe me, and do so while it’s happening. So that you know it has never been hyperbole.
“I’ve never felt so disrespected in my life” is a line I know I’ve heard before, fielded and responded to before, in conversations with family and friends. Something happens at work, at the store, in a board meeting, and you can’t forget it. This isolated moment hangs there in your mind and your heart, for weeks, maybe months, and you try to set it loose to be forgotten and overcome.
I want you to know what it looks like to be a foreigner and a woman, to be a target for unceasing ostracism and contempt. To be a foreigner and a woman living in Ethiopia.
At least twice a week I go through a bout of misery. A deep hopelessness resulting in bitter anger. That statement—I’ve never felt so disrespected in my life—is not an isolated, once-in-a-blue-moon moment for us female volunteers. It has become our state of being. Every other day, at the very least, for the past 21 months, I have been sexually harassed. Men have licked their lips, kissed the air, stared at my breasts, invited me to their homes (in Ethiopian culture this literally equals Come sleep with me), asked about my sex life, professed their love for me, gawked at me for half hours like I’m a poster, described my features in inappropriate detail, called me sexy, etc. And I come home feeling like a used object on a broken shelf.
The male volunteers will never quite understand this. They support us dearly, and listen well—and they sometimes see it happen—but they’ll never fully feel it as their own. It will rarely ever be directed towards them. They’ll always be the supporters, not the ones needing the support and not wanting to ask for it.
What this means is: when, weekly, I vent and cry to Daniel about the particular sexual harassment I’ve been given that week, I end up feeling relieved in the moment—for having told him, and for how he soothes and encourages me, lifts me up—but gradually, gradually I end up feeling like an awful individual. I struggle with the questions: Am I an awful volunteer? Am I becoming a horrible person? Am I so full of hate—and how is he not? Am I so weak, so thin-skinned? Could I be exaggerating this somehow? Is it even a problem, or is it only in my head? Shouldn’t I be over it by now? Will I be like this when we go home, too?
I am an object of hate. I am ridiculed, I am blatantly desired. They see me as separate, as other and yet simultaneously, as theirs. They think I belong to them, that I exist for their entertainment and lust.
I only leave our home when I have to: school, church, market. It’s inside my house, within our stone-wall compound, that I feel like a person. Like a loved woman, not an abused one. Like I can be healthy and normal and free.
I’m legitimately afraid of who I’m becoming, of the gentle self I may have lost, of the thoughts that run through my head, of the comments I make about Ethiopia, about Ethiopians. I am angry. Most of the time I feel like a burning ball of hate. I feel unfairly wounded, and feel the need to fight back. I don’t feel the same loving person that I arrived. And I feel alone in this. Daniel and the rest of the male volunteers despise being called Money and You! White! It’s awful, the continuous psychological strain is exhausting, but it can’t quite ever reach the likes of Sex! or Pus*y!
My sweet friend was told by a stranger on the road: “I want to lick your…” Fill in the blank yourselves.
My good friend had a man on the road run up to her and grab her crotch, right in front of her husband. A police officer stood by on the road, playing with his phone, while her husband had to be the one to do the “punishing.”
Multiple friends have reported of men showing them pornography on buses, as a sort of sick invitation. One volunteer sat beside such a man on a bus, as he masturbated beside her and her visitor from the states.
Three of my friends often tell me how frequently they are grabbed and groped as they walk to work—their breasts, their buttocks—by men they pass by.
Enjoying a gracious meal with one of our favorite families, the Negas, our good evening took a turn when I received the first of what became a long string of texts that night from an unknown number. The sender described for me what the different parts of my body would taste like.
And this is no longer shocking to us. It’s commonplace. We expect it; this is what it is. It’s a part of our lives now. And all the while we give up so much to help our predators. To serve them and their country.
When I cry to Daniel, I often belittle my experience, to question my own psychology. I haven’t been grabbed once. The other girls have it so much worse than I do. Why am I so affected by this? Why can I not keep it out of my head? Why is it so so damaging? What’s wrong with me?
A wise friend told me, “But we shouldn’t have to qualify it! Why are we telling ourselves that this isn’t that bad, that there are worse things? No one should have to go through this, any of it, ever, whatever the degree.”
It is always affecting us women. We walk to school, to market, anywhere, and we have our mantras prepared. We are muttering to ourselves what we’ll say, what we’ll do, when they target us—not if, no it’s never if, it’s when. So even when they’re not speaking to us, they’re winning. Even when they’re not speaking to me, I’m hating them.
Unless they’re my colleague or shopkeeper or trusted friend, I purposefully ignore men in the age group of 15 and 45. I ignore their hellos. When Daniel greets his students on the road, I usually continue walking, eyes focused ahead, indifferent scowl plastered on my face. Four hundred or so men, in the course of my 21 months here, who have exercised that power they think is their right to lord over me—a mere woman—have sullied the image of the other 30,000 men in my town. These men have become untrustworthy until proven otherwise.
How it changes us: We wear frumpy, unattractive clothing, and no makeup. We make eye contact with no one. We keep to our houses, our rooms. We avoid certain colleagues and schools whose principals make moves on us. We welcome no conversation from strangers on the road, because we know what the comments will quickly become 70% of the time. If we own headphones, we always wear them when out in public. We are losing our sweet, loving, and welcoming spirits. We have become hardened.
I say we, because I only just fully realized. I knew we were being sexually harassed, I knew it wasn’t only me, that it was happening to all 160 of us female volunteers living in Ethiopia; we can’t escape it. We learned this early. But what I didn’t know was that it was affecting all of us almost entirely the exact same way. That all this time, we were fully together in this—every single bit of this.
We just attended our annual All-Volunteer Conference in Addis Ababa. On the first day we had a session for the ladies, to discuss gender inequality in this country, to discuss how we’re treated, and how we can cope with it in healthy, non-destructive ways. When our session leader shared that “when my parents came to visit, they said, ‘Wow, honey, you’ve become quite mean,’” the relief that rose from my chest was unquantifiable. That’s me, I whispered. When one friend talked about having lost her ability to keep eye contact with people, to be friendly with strangers, the tears began to surface. That’s me, I whispered. When a volunteer talked about the “stink face” she wears everywhere in public—how shocked she was by it when her friend took a candid photo to show her later—I laughed knowingly. That’s me too. The entire session, as we all unloaded on each other for support, and shared and coped, all I could do was weep silently. I didn’t know how powerful, how important, solidarity and understanding could be. For the first time, I was looking into my fellow female volunteers’ faces and seeing my own reflection.
And then our male staff-member, there to support us, to hope along with us for some solution or answer, stood to encourage us, and he couldn’t finish his sentence. He cried alongside us, and we wondered that he could feel the weight of it too.
I thought I was less, I thought I was pathetic. I thought I was becoming as unchristian as I could possibly be, and that it was my own fault, that surely I could be handling this better, more maturely and compassionately. But, in fact, we’ve all been psychologically forced to the same dark and difficult place. The place in the corner of our minds where we must daily try to force the light back in, reminding ourselves that we are strong, good, beautiful women, and we are no one’s objects to possess. We are our own selves.
I suppose I want you to know the truth of it. That this is really really hard. That today, in Ethiopia, you have 160 strong women serving your country and world to help work towards peace and development and education and quality of life for all. That many days, maybe most days, we’re suffering through it. But we remain strong, and will defeat this. The western world is outnumbered in their earnest and successful efforts to keep men and women equal, and if this is all we ever see, this is all we’ll ever see. I wish you knew what it was like almost everywhere else.
In our All-Volunteer Survey, over half of our volunteers surveyed reported that they are sexually harassed at least a few times each week. A quarter of all the volunteers surveyed reported they are sexually harassed more than once each day. When these surveys were compared to those throughout the rest of Africa’s Peace Corps posts, Ethiopia ranked First in sexual harassment.
And yet we’re only getting a two-year glimpse—and though an awful one—just a two-year period of being treated as less, as worse, as not good enough, i.e. as “woman”. We’re told, “No—you can’t climb that mountain; you’re a woman,” as they laugh at us; we’re asked, “How can you be fat and single? No man will marry you,” as they laugh at us; we’re asked by male colleagues, “Would you like me to measure myself for you, so I can tell you my size?” as they grin at us; we’re asked, “Is your husband good in bed?” as they snicker at us—and the entire time we know in that bright corner of our minds that we are getting out of here in just a few months, in just another year, etc. We will escape these common horrors eventually—it’s a sacrificial sliver in our lifetimes—but the women around us, the women and young girls in our communities whom we come to love and adore and admire: they have to live with this. Indefinitely. And while we at least have the relief of complete awareness of our injustice and the indignation that follows, they will go on thinking it normal and acceptable and their own burden to carry—until someone will do something to change it.
To our families: I suppose maybe you’ve compared Daniel’s musings about Ethiopia with mine, the way I had been doing, and found me falling short. I’ve been afraid you think me weak and under-qualified for this job I committed to. That I’m weak-willed, less tolerant, and simply more dramatic than my husband. I’ve been afraid you think me prejudiced and bitter-hearted for no reason (for how can you possibly know what this is?). I’ve been afraid that maybe, around your dinner tables, you discuss how bad and inappropriate my attitude has become, how I blow things out of proportion, how inadequate I am for this job, how I haven’t lived up to the task I’ve been given. But what I want you to know, before we come home, is that I am brave. I am resilient. And after 630 so days of this, I am still here. I didn’t quit. And I suppose, somehow, I still actually want to be here to help them. I think that has to say something.
And perhaps, with the hate, love is there too.
This is undoubtedly “the toughest job I’ll ever love”. The toughest job, thing, two-year stretch, whatever you want to call it, that I will never experience again.
As I trudge through the murky recesses of a wounded and slowly-recovering spirit while the near-nightmare continues, I’m focusing on Love. Specifically, on Christ’s words in Matthew 5: 43-48.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
A Christian for 15 or so years, I thought I knew what this meant, what Jesus meant when He said this. I thought “frenemies” counted in this category. Annoying people, know-it-alls, and the “least of these.” I thought they were who it was hard to love and who we had to love anyway. Let me suggest that maybe that is quite easy by comparison. I didn’t really know Hate until I joined Peace Corps. When I become most hopeless and full of rage and doubt, I remember that Christ knows exactly what it feels like to be an object of disgust. He didn’t have frenemies—he was “despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.” (Isaiah 53: 3). The Son of God was trampled by hateful men, and yet He tells us to love those who hate us. To turn the other cheek. To respond not in hate, but with love. For if we love those who love us—should we be congratulated?
Before now, I’ve always prided myself on being an exceptionally nice person. Kind to everyone, always assuming the best of people. Then I came here and realized that for the past 25 years, people were being kind to me too. What credit was it to me? Yellem—there is none. Easy peasy.
So while I’ve certainly never been so disrespected in my entire life, and never will be again to this unyielding, heightened degree—neither have I been so humbled. So shocked into a deep understanding of my sinful humanity, Christ’s perfection, and the depth of His love for us. To, for the first time, understand what my Lord meant when He turned an age-old custom on its head and made it nearly impossible to fulfill—and entirely impossible to fulfill by our own human power. To, for the first time, know that I don’t know the first step to fulfilling this command. On my own, I am no different from the lowest of men: I know how to love those who treat me nicely; big, amazing deal.
So I thank God for His grace. He knows how to love those who hate us—He’s done it, and He did it well—and He won’t keep it a secret from us. If we ask Him to show us how that cheek-turning thing works, surely, surely, He will.
Upon Him was the chastisement that brought me peace, and with His wounds I am healed.
I’ve written this same “blog entry” three times in the past five months—and yet I never post it. I end by crying into my hands, angrier than when I started, and knowing I can’t possibly express or share what can barely be understood and only judged. Daniel and I have made a conscious decision to keep our posts as positive as possible, to sift out as much negativity (even if deserved) as possible. Because this is our fear: Crude catcalls linger in the memory more vividly than beautiful coffee ceremonies; inappropriate colleagues may be more memorable than our stories of our sweet Meron. We do love Ethiopia; we do love living in Ethiopia. And so we use our writing carefully, so that we don’t distort your image of this unique place when we’re in our worst and weariest moods. But I also believe that we can’t fully understand what it means to love a place, unless we know the whole of it—unless we know how difficult it can be to love that place. Somehow the value of the love increases. And the fact that I’ve tried and wanted to give you the full account of it at least three times—tells me that maybe, somehow, I should tell you. That maybe, somehow, you can benefit from it.
One of the main manifestations of Christ’s gracious love for me has been the one who listens to every account of this every day, with compassion and hurt and love, not knowing how to deal with it but trying as hard as he can, and who tells me that I am a good volunteer, that I am a good Christian, and I am a good woman. As I speak words of doubt, he counters them with words of encouragement. I’d have been on a plane home a year ago if it wasn’t for this daily and very crucial help from the worthiest and best of helpmates. He helps me to be the strongest of women. I think I’ll be forever inspired by my 150 or so role models who somehow withstand and overcome this, and stay here, without their own Daniel. We weren’t meant to bear such burdens. And yet somehow, we do.